Review of "The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition" by William Vandoodewaard

The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition, Atonement, Saving Faith, and the Gospel Offer in Scotland (1718-1799) by William Vandoodewaard, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011, 313 pp.
The central aim in William Vandoodewaard’s The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition is to show theological continuity between the Marrowmen of the 1720s and the later Seceder ministers of the 18th century. In this I judge he has succeeded, though on another subject he touches on in the book and which I will address later in this review I have great concern.
The first part of the book (pages 9 through 110) is on the Marrow Controversy, an exceedingly complex theological discussion during the 1720s in the Church of Scotland. Here Vandoodewaard’s writing is far more accessible that David Lachman’s massive tome The Marrow Controversy.
The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition impressed on me (more than my previous readings on the subject) just how complex the Marrow Controversy was. In Vandoodewaard’s explanation of some of the pertinent theological views of both proponents and opponents of Marrow (that is, the theology of the book The Marrow of Modern Divinity) it is evident that there was a variety of beliefs on the law of God, the atonement, saving faith and assurance, and the offer of the gospel among other topics. Because of the diversity of views I’m now more hesitant to say I accept the majority’s position at the time in the Church of Scotland, for the majority itself was not uniform in its beliefs on these matters.
Though not his primary objective, it appears to me that Vandoodewaard supports the minority view of the Marrowmen on the doctrine of the Free Offer of the Gospel and thus joins the ranks of his fellow Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister Sinclair Ferguson (The Whole Christ), as well as John Piper (Does God Desire All to be Saved?), and John Murray and Ned Stonehouse (The Free Offer of the Gospel) in promoting the view known as the well-meant offer of the gospel (WMO) that God desires the salvation of all men.
It is with this doctrine that I have serious disagreement and concern. And while it is probably unfair to spend the majority of this review upon the topic, I believe the error sufficiently dangerous that it must be noted and opposed.
Of this doctrine Vandoodewaard writes, “In applying the biblical warrant to ‘go and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven,’ the author of The Marrow expounded, ‘That is, go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him, Christ is dead for him, and if he will take him and accept of his righteousness, he shall have it.'” p. 11.
It is my contention that this is not applying but mis-applying the doctrine. That is, it is not a legitimate deduction from “the Gospel is to be preached to all” to conclude that “God desires the salvation of all” nor certainly to the unlimited atonement view that “Christ is dead for him”; all men. (And this is not to mention the fact that “Christ is dead” is an heretical statement.)
Sadly, this error has become the view of the majority in Reformed circles today. But while David Engelsma’s masterpiece Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel brilliantly dispatches with the arguments of the supporters of the WMO, you probably won’t find this book at a Ligonier conference or at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Rather it is Ferguson’s The Whole Christ and to a lesser extent Vandoodewaard’s The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition that are promoted.
While the WMO view of the Marrowmen was the majority position in the Christian Reformed Church ever since their 1924 Synod of Kalamazoo, in recently years CRC theologian John Bolt has taken the opposite position with his essay “Herman Hoeksema was Right.” In my opinion, Ferguson, Vandoodewaard, or another proponent of the WMO should try respond to Bolt’s essay. I would hope that in the process they realize their errors.
Of central importance, Bolt argues that the proponents of the WMO “usually fail to distinguish carefully between ‘call’ and ‘offer,’ and in so doing accept the Remonstrant definition of call as God’s desire and intention to save those who receive the call.” (p. 302) I made essentially the same arguments as Bolt, though not as eloquently, in a footnote on page 118 of The Presbyterian Philosopher. Bolt’s argument is that a clear distinction must be made between the doctrine of the General Call of the Gospel to preach to all men indiscriminately and the (erroneous) doctrine of the Free Offer of the Gospel (FOG) or Well-Meant Offer (WMO) that God desires each and every person’s salvation.
While perhaps, as Vandoodewaard notes, some of the theologians in the Church of Scotland during the Marrow Controversy did not sufficiently hold to the former (the General Call), it is clear that this doctrine is held by Hoeksema, Clark, Gerstner, Engelsma, and Bolt. And so while there might have been a hyper-Calvinist or two in the early 18th century, these defenders of Calvinism in more recent times are not hyper.
The acceptance of the well-meant offer is one of the greatest weaknesses in modern Reformed theology because it ruins an otherwise systematic faith. It is a doctrine that fits with Arminianism, Amyraldianism, and Universalism, but it does not fit with the system of Calvinism and its doctrine of particular redemption. Though a valuable book for its presentation of the history, without a warning against the well-meant offer doctrine of the Marrowmen (and in fact even an acceptance of it!) I cannot recommend The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition as a doctrinally sound volume.

4 thoughts on “Review of "The Marrow Controversy and Seceder Tradition" by William Vandoodewaard”

    1. Thanks John. I actually met Garret Johnson at the Trinity Foundation Conference last year and we talked about that essay of his! Interesting guy! He and I with a group of guys at the conference went out to dinner as well. Good times.

  1. “The acceptance of the well-meant offer is one of the greatest weaknesses in modern Reformed theology because it ruins an otherwise systematic faith. It is a doctrine that fits with Arminianism, Amyraldianism, and Universalism, but it does not fit with the system of Calvinism and its doctrine of particular redemption.”
    One hundred percent correct! I came to the conclusion years ago that the vast majority of professing Calvinists do not truly believe the doctrine of limited atonement; they are Calvinists in name only. The “well-meant offer” relies upon a universal atonement, period. My question to hypo-Calvinists of every stripe is quite simple: Were the sins of the elect alone imputed to Christ on the Cross or the sins of all men without exception? If their answer is the sins of the elect alone, then there’s no ground or basis for the well-meant offer; the sins of the non-elect have not been atoned for. If their answer is the sins of all men without exception, then they believe in a universal atonement and can no longer be considered genuine Calvinists.

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